If you are accused of a crime, it is right to expect that you will be presumed innocent and have full access to a lawyer. Similarly if you are accused of wrongdoing at work, you are entitled to trade union representation for the duration of the disciplinary process.
But what happens to the most vulnerable people in society who are subject to benefit re-assessment or are a target of the sanctions régime?
Unable to access representation
55 per cent of people undergoing benefits re-assessment and sanctions (out of 190 recorded cases) were not able to access professional advice and representation, according to the results of a recent survey of frontline workers in leading advice agencies – Advice NI, Advice North West and East Belfast Independent Advice Centre.
The consequences of not being able to access representation are critical: how can someone stand up for themselves if they don’t understand the nature of the allegations against them? Without advice, how can they challenge procedural flaws or the inappropriate behaviour of assessors?
Vulnerable people engage in the process in good faith, and hit a wall of unforgiving bureaucracy:
"Claimant has severe mental health issues and severe learning difficulties They tried to put in renewal forms themselves and carry out the telephone assessment without assistance She was refused her [Personal Independence Payment], which will affect her [Severe Disability Premium] element in ESA, and assessor kept referring to her understanding all questions, having good cognitive ability and able to live independently (she lives in supported accommodation). Claimant distressed at the refusal and the erroneous matters used to justify the refusal."
The cases noted by the participating advice workers illustrate the consequences of navigating this process alone:
Where is the 'due process'?
Both the UK government and Stormont administration have a legal obligation under international law to ensure that people are afforded rights to due process in any social security assessment process:
"The withdrawal, reduction or suspension of benefits should be circumscribed, based on grounds that are reasonable, subject to due process, and provided for in national law." (UNCESRC, General Comment 19, para 24)
Advice workers have been inundated with the sheer volume of assessments that so-called ‘welfare reform’ has generated. Furthermore the complexity of the cases, and the critical impact of the outcome on the person, mean that significant work needs to go into each case.
In 2020/21 two-thirds of PIP (Personal Independence Payments) appeals were upheld at final appeal. Such high levels of successful appeals indicate serious errors built into the assessment process itself. Making sure everyone has access to representation at all stages is one means of ensuring that no individual or family experience preventable loss of income or sustained poverty as a result of an assessment process.
The People's Proposal: guaranteeing basic rights
The People’s Proposal is a set of measures that would empower frontline assessments workers within the Department for Communities to ensure that people undergoing benefit assessments have had their basic rights upheld during the process. These include rights to due process (information and representation) as well as a basic human rights impact assessment to ensure that nobody falls below the “minimum essential levels” as obligated under international law.
Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey MLA, has the power to implement the People’s Proposal tomorrow. All 11 local councils, and all major political parties – including the Minister’s own - have formally endorsed the People’s Proposal. However, to date, the Minister and her officials have not taken any measures to adopt these common sense protections despite a series of meetings with human rights campaigners and lead advice agencies since September 2020.
The People’s Proposal will not eliminate poverty or rebuild a strong social security system; it will provide a modest level of protection for the most vulnerable in our society. It is a modest proposal requiring modest changes in the administration of social security assessments.
Every day that the Minister and her officials refuse to implement it results in hundreds of people experiencing the indignity that advice workers have documented in their research.
Let’s get it moving, Minister Hargey. Why would you wait?
The report on the survey, Sounding the Alarm, can be viewed here.
Seán Brady is Assistant Director of Programmes with PPR.